Editors 'baffled' by PCC Clause 17 rulings

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said he was baffled by the behaviour of the Press Complaints Commission and its rulings on payments to criminals, writes Mary Stevens.

Responding to a letter he received from the PCC this week, he said he wondered “whether they are more interested in playing games than the more serious issue of regulation”.

He also said Clause 17, which regulates payments to criminals, was unworkable. PCC director Guy Black’s letter said the commission would not be investigating the paper’s Erwin James column about life inside prison, which was looked at following a ruling against the paper for its payment to prisoner John Williams. It explained: “The subject matter of the pieces is clearly very different from that contained in the John Williams article. As the commission’s adjudication on that case made clear, its concern was that the article amounted to an opportunistic piece based on the notoriety of a fellow inmate.

Not to have found a breach of the code in such circumstances would have set an unwelcome precedent as I am sure, on reflection, you now appreciate.”

Rusbridger told Press Gazette: “The heart does sink when you get phrases like that in the middle of official letters.”

He noted that another letter, sent by him and four other broadsheet editors setting out concern over Clause 17 of the code, has had no response. “I think they have had that letter now for over a week, so to put that line in saying we might now agree with the adjudication feels like point scoring.”

The PCC’s letter to Rusbridger also said: “Commissioners have asked me to let you know that they are at a loss to know why you should think that the Williams adjudication should negatively impact on your ability to pay Erwin James for these sorts of pieces.”

Rusbridger said he consulted the PCC on 18 June about James, asking for advice. “Much of this needn’t have happened if they’d replied but they said that a) they weren’t willing to give us advice, which is odd because they give advice to the tabloids all the time, and b) they sent us an e-mail saying ‘you may already be in breach of the code because you have paid him in the past’. So it’s a bit disingenuous for him now to be saying it’s obvious that we are not breaching the code.

Many of us find their behaviour a bit baffling.”

He added: “My view is that Clause 17 is now such a mess they have to go back to the drawing board. I and other editors have difficulty in working out how they’re going to interpret it. There’s been such inconsistency in applying it we can’t plot a consistent course through.”

Rusbridger had previously said he would have little choice but to pull out of the PCC if it found against the James column.

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